New water-quality station is a step forward for Baltimore water pollution clean-up

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Online sites will provide the first real-time, user-friendly Inner Harbor water information

In a first for Baltimore and the nation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency will soon be installing a suite of sensors that will provide the public and scientists with the first comprehensive, real time look at water quality in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the urban rivers that flow into it are important sources of water to Chesapeake Bay, popular recreation sites for residents and tourists, and the targets of an ambitious clean-up plan to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by the year 2020. But until now, the city has lacked monitoring systems where key water pollution indicators are continuously measured and made available to the public in real time.

A pilot program, announced by the EPA and USGS at today’s (Oct. 14) White House roundtable on environmental restoration in Baltimore, is designed to change that.

“The water quality information provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and Environmental Protection Agency will inform the collective efforts of other federal, state and local officials all working to make Baltimore Harbor safe for swimming and fishing,” said Don Cline, the USGS Associate Director for Water, from USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. “Everyone deserves clean water, and the sensors will provide the local community a real-time look at water quality in the harbor, informing efforts to improve it.”

Example of water quality sensor being used in the Village Blue research project
Example of water quality sensor being used in the Village Blue research project

Two instruments to be mounted near a pedestrian bridge across the mouth of the Jones Falls, overlooking the Baltimore Harbor Water Wheel (aka “Mr. Trash Wheel”), will continuously monitor the water’s flow and quality. That information will automatically feed into two online networks: the USGS’ nationwide water quality monitoring website, used by scientists, water quality managers, and citizens; and an EPA pilot project called “Village Blue,” which seeks to increase public awareness of water quality issues.

“This initiative will provide the public with access to and understanding of water quality data they can use in a number of important ways,” said EPA Regional Administrator Shawn M. Garvin.  “The information will help people become better stewards of their local waterways and take actions to protect their health by reducing exposure to contaminants.”

The Baltimore “Village Blue” station is the first of its kind in the nation. Modeled on an existing EPA air quality awareness program called “Village Green,” with air pollution monitoring stations in six US cities, it will make flow and water-quality information from the Jones Falls available to the public in an easy-to-read format on a soon to be live special EPA website. The information will also be available at the USGS water data website, where information from about 1.5 million water monitoring sites nationwide is made public and searchable.

“We see this as more than a set of new scientific instruments. It is also a step forward in helping Baltimore meet its goal of a cleaner, healthier, more accessible Inner Harbor,” said Mary Kay Foley, director of the USGS’ Maryland-Delaware-DC Water Science Center, which collaborated on the project with the EPA

“The information we’re gathering will help scientists better understand how to clean up the Chesapeake Bay,” Foley said. “And it will empower the citizens of Baltimore by giving them real time water quality and hydrologic information about the current status of their historic waterfront.”

The USGS operates more than a dozen continuous, comprehensive water-quality monitoring stations in Maryland, including several in the Baltimore metro area. Information from these monitoring stations helps USGS hydrologists quantify the amount, types, and sources of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, and that information in turn helps guide Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.

The new monitoring station will be equipped with a flow meter, and five water-quality sensors. The sensors will continuously measure water temperature, salinity, oxygen content, pH (acidity or alkalinity) and turbidity (cloudiness). A sixth sensor, to be added later, will measure dissolved nitrogen compounds, which act as a fertilizer for algae blooms. The equipment was paid for with funds appropriated by Congress after Superstorm Sandy struck the Northeast Coast in October 2012. The EPA will provide funds to operate the station, and will also maintain the “Village Blue” website where its data will be displayed. The station is also designed to serve as a test site for a new generation of low-cost water monitoring sensors being developed by the EPA.